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As the world continues to mourn the loss of one of its greatest modern musical icons, game developer and publisher Square Enix has reminded us that David Bowie’s reach extended far past music. Bowie was even once an integral part of an obscure video game. Square Enix gave away The Nomad Soul (called Omikron: the Nomad Soul stateside) for free following Bowie’s passing this month, making this the perfect opportunity to indulge in the nostalgia of a game long forgotten starring an icon who never will be.
There was a brief time in the late ‘90s when celebrities were trying their luck in video games en masse. Everyone from Bruce Willis to the Spice Girls were showing up on PlayStations, Dreamcasts and PCs. David Bowie’s foray in the virtual realm was a little more special though. He didn’t just get scanned for a 3D portrait for a blocky character model to include in a game (although Omikron has that too); he dove head first into creating a whole soundscape for the game.
Developer David Cage and his studio, Quantic Dream, have long been obsessed with the concept of telling stories in a cinematic way through gaming. His more recent PlayStation games, like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, as well as Indigo Prophecy before them, were all flawed yet creative exercises in virtual story telling. All Cage’s games have an underlying flaw though—they universally suffer from a design dream that is far more ambitious than what’s currently possible.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in The Nomad Soul. Released for Windows PC in 1999 (and for the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast system the next year), the game was a cluttered mess of genres—part shooting, part fighting, part exploration and adventure, part role-playing—almost none of which meshed well. The concept and original intent were beautiful though. You, as the player, played, well, you. After a mysterious call for help, the game sends your soul through space and time to inhabit a body within the mysterious domed city of Omikron.
There’s a whole layer of conspiracies in the story—evil demons, a serial killer, corrupt government, resistance fighters, oh my! The real selling point was the idea that if the body you inhabited died, you instantly moved to nearby body. Initially, Cage’s concept was a whole living city where you could literally take over anyone and then inhabit their individual lives. Since this concept would be sketchy even today, the final version of the game heavily scales the scope down. The end result is still interesting, but noteworthy almost entirely because of David Bowie’s presence.
ALL OR NOTHING
When the game was in pre-production, Cage and Eidos (the then-publisher) wanted a known commodity to attach to the soundtrack to give Omikron a marketing edge. Just someone famous to come in, do a few songs, and leave. What they got was Bowie, who never did anything half-way and insisted on being in the game and doing the entire soundtrack with longtime musical partner Reeves Gabels (who is now in The Cure). The ten songs they worked on that year for the game would also turn into Bowie’s Hours… album (released in 1999).
Bowie ended up playing two different characters in the game. One was the leader of the resistance fighting the government and the other was the lead singer for an underground rock band, whose performances you could actually go to and watch within the game. He and his band were motion captured while performing and even his wife, Iman, is in it.
Bowie’s music for the game was an amazing contrast to Cage’s dark and cold metallic landscape of Omikron city. The musician wanted something melodic, soulful, and more human to create a sense of hope in a bleak landscape. He and Gabels succeeded in creating a beautiful soundscape. Still, even without Bowie’s inclusion Omikron would be an interesting footnote in gaming history because of its ambition. To many, it’s a cult classic and despite the overture of problems with the game, it’s conceptually easy to see why. The Nomad Soul is a mélange of ideas shoved into a blender with fascinating results. There are some truly interesting bits milling around and even a few great parts.
It just so happens that most of those great parts are directly centered around David Bowie.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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